Thursday, November 25, 2010
The Christian Right XIV Church, State and National Decline 84
Comment on American Theocracy Chapter 7: Church State and National Decline
Regarding the suicidal hijacked plane crashes of September 11, 2001, Phillips reports that “Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed that the United States had been attacked because of God's displeasure with secular immorality. Their comments, although quickly retracted, paint a picture of the stern Old Testament God hurling thunderbolts and wrath at his wayward chosen people.”
Phillips points out that secular Americans thought differently – that the attack was the result of economics, society and errors in foreign policy. Some worried about the excesses of religion and the influence of the Christian right, a number that doubled between 2001 and 2005 because of the Terry Shiavo episode of a brain dead woman remaining in limbo on artificial equipment and nourishment.
Mainline religions began a counterattack with publications like The Rapture Exposed, written by Barbara Rossing, who contends that rapture theology is essentially a racket. Phillips writes:
“The historical dilemma is that while religion has generally served humankind well, certainly in framing successful societies around the world there have been conspicuous exceptions – bloody religious wars, malevolent crusades, and false prophecies. Indeed, the precedents of past leading world economic powers show that blind faith and religious excesses – the rapture seems to be both – have often contributed to national decline, sometimes even being in its forefront.”
Phillips offers a yardstick based on Rome, Hapsburg Spain, the Dutch Republic, Britain and the United States that reveals five critical symptoms of decline in these once-leading economic powers:
1. Widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay
2. Growing religious fervor, church-state relationship or crusading insistence
3. A rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a downplaying of science
4. A popular anticipation of a millennial event, epochal battle, emergent anti-Christ,
imminent second coming or Armageddon
5. Strategic and military overreach, pursuing abstract international missions that the
nation can no longer afford, economically or politically
Phillips states he did not include “high debt levels in this set of symptoms, partly because it seems a familiar facet of great-power economic ageing,” and essentially because one-third of American Theocracy is devoted to that topic explicitly.
Exceptionalism: The Delusion that the United States is Different
“Fervent religion feeding into national hubris late in an imperial trajectory is a particularly worrisome historical sign that should summon caution for the present-day United States,” Phillips warns in explaining symptom #1.
Symptom #2 can be dealt with by referring to The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman (2002). Freeman explains how Rome's fourth- and fifth century Christian regimes closed famous libraries such as Alexandria, threw out the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy, and followed the Apostle Paul's advice to dismiss Greek logicians. “It is hard,” Freeman wrote, “to see how mathematics, science or associated disciplines that depended on empirical observations could have made any progress in this atmosphere.” After the last recorded astronomical observation in 475, “it would be over 1,000 years – with the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in 1543 – before these studies began to move ahead again.”
Symptom #3 is seen in Rome's nefarious decline, the subject of many Hollywood movies but, nonetheless, an actual historical occurrence. Spain's notorious gulf between the rich and poor was noted by reformer Gonzalez de Cellorigo early in the 17th century. James Boswell noted the decline of Dutch cities and rampant human idleness in the 18th century. Winston Churchill said in 1908 that “the seed of imperial ruin and national decay – the unnatural gap between the rich and the poor...the exploitation of boy labor, the physical degeneration which seems to follow so swiftly on civilized poverty... the swift increase of vulgar, jobless luxury – are the enemies of Britain.” The plutocratic splendor of the era was well described by George Dangerfield in The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-14.
Symptom #4, a pre-millennial time frame -- a disturbing example is Britain from 1900 to 1914. This was the Britain of Kipling's “White Man's Burden,” and martial hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (written by Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan), a swagger that was beaten down by trench warfare in the “Great War” from 1914 to 1918. A bad peace treaty made another war inevitable, at the end of which, in 1945, Britain's empire was broke and unsustainable.
Symptom #5 is unwise and strategically unsound military adventures, a classic flaw of empires in their last stage. The Spanish were broken by the Thirty Years' War. The Anglo-Dutch wars with France spelled an end to the greatness of the Dutch trading empire. Two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century sapped the British Empire and made the United States the world's leading power and executive for the prosecution of the Cold War. Winning the Cold War was a great victory for America, but Phillips notes that “one unfortunate result was hubris and triumphalism.” He wonders about overreach by America in the 21st century.
A Twenty-First Century American Disenlightenment?
“The frequent by-products of religious fervor in the later stages of the previous powers –zealotry, exaltation of faith over reason, to much church-state collaboration, or a contagion of crusader mentality – shed light on another contemporary U.S. predicament. Controversies that run the gamut from interference with science to biblically inhibited climatology and petroleum geology and demands for the partial reunion of church and state have accompanied the political rise of Christian conservatism. Such trends are rarely auspicious,” Phillips writes.
The Republican party became the party of religiosity in the 1980s and 90s. Party organizations, especially in southern and western states, endorsed “Christian nation” platforms. These radical documents advocate measures such as using the Bible as the basis for domestic law to emphasizing religious schools to pressing women's subordination to men. The 2004 platform of the Texas Republican party is used as an example by Phillips, as “It reaffirms the status off the United States as a 'Christian nation,' regrets 'the myth of separation of church and state,' calls for abstinence instead of sex education, and broadly mirrors the reconstructionist demand for the abolition of a large group of federal agencies and departments...”
Nor is all of this a paper storm. George W. Bush appointed as his first attorney general Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, who enjoyed a 100 percent approval rating from both he Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee. Phillips notes, “The way in which Bush White House policies were application of hard-line, preformed doctrine rather than the results of evidence seeking was explained by two departing and disillusioned officials. Former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill recalled his dismay that ideology dwarfed real-world analysis: “Ideology is a lot easier, because you don't have to know anything or search for anything. You already know the answer to everything. It's not penetrable by facts.” John DiIulio, the first head of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, ruefully described “the complete lack of a policy apparatus” or “meaningful, substantive policy discussions” because everything was political, with much of the policy coming from right-wing think tanks and the Christian right.”
“He really isn't interested in faith in general... His is not an embrace of spirituality or ethics broadly speaking or of faith as an important voice among many in the national debate. It is, instead an embrace of right-wing Christian fundamentalism,” wrote Esther Kaplan of George W. Bush in her book, With God on Their Side.
Phillips finds that “many of Bush's views exuded a theological correctness that was almost a mirror image of the political correctness displayed by secular liberals in discussing minority groups, women's rights, and environmental sanctity.”
Public skepticism grew, “even one-third of self-identified Republicans found themselves critical when poll takers queried whether the religious right had too much or too little influence in Washington. But they were too late. Theology had moved from church pulpits into the decision-making circles of the nation's capital.